Posts tagged ‘Nonfiction Monday’

Swing Sisters

Swing SistersTitle: Swing Sisters: The Story of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm
Author: Karen Deans
Illustrator: Joe Cepeda
Pages: unpaged
ISBN: 9780823419708
Publisher/Date: Holiday House, c2015.

Dr. Jones loved music and wanted the children to love it too. In 1939 he started a school band that was just for girls, and he called it the Sweethearts.

Started as an fundraiser for a African American orphanage founded in 1909, the Sweethearts soon became something more. They played in the beginning for schools and church groups. When the musicians aged out of the orphanage, they stayed together, playing all over the country, including at the Howard Theater in Washington to an audience of 35,000 people and overseas in Europe for the troops during World War II. For years they quietly broke Jim Crow laws, allowing any women who could jump, jive, and swing on an instrument to join their band. This caused problems with some folks, forcing some of their members to sneak out of their bus and head to the train station via taxi rather than getting caught by the police in the company of African Americans. Eventually, the group disbanded as the women pursued other goals and interests, like other jobs or families.

It’s interesting to learn about an African American orphanage during the 1900s that taught literacy skills to children many saw as underprivileged, when so many African American children weren’t taught how to read or write. With sparse writing that conveys just enough information for younger readers which the book is geared toward, it’s a welcome addition that websites, books, and documentaries are available for those who would like to learn more, including a NPR broadcast and a Smithsonian feature from a few years ago. While just a blip in music, women’s, and African American histories, these trail blazers have not been forgotten, even if — as one interview remarks — few recordings of their work are still around.

The illustrations are multicolored and textured, and the oil and acrylic paintings lend a texture, similar to cracked paint, that encourage a lingering look and give it an old time feel. The crowd scenes are equally impressive as many of the people have distinguishing characteristics and skin tones, and the period clothing is quite colorful. The closing scenes of a silhouetted band playing in front of a sunset orange and yellow hued background, paired with an older women passing along a trumpet to a younger girl, reflect the closing sentiments of the book. “Those Sweethearts didn’t know it at the time, but they helped open doors for women of all backgrounds.” (unpaged)

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

Draw What You See

Draw What You SeeTitle: Draw What You See: The Life and Art of Benny Andrews
Author: Kathleen Benson
Illustrator: Illustrated with paintings by Benny Andrews
ISBN: 9780544104877
Pages: 32 pages
Publisher/Date: Clarion Books, c2015.

Benny started to draw when he was three years old. Once he started, he never stopped. (6)

This picture book biography summarizes the life of Benny Andrews, an African-American artist born in the 1930s and living long enough to teach children displaced by Hurricane Katrina how to express their emotions through art. While I enjoyed the use of his actual works to illustrate, rather than having an illustrator mimic his style, I was somewhat disappointed that the majority of the pieces selected were from his later years. For someone who has lived and painted as long as he had, I expected a broader selection, although I found myself enjoying his later pieces (done in the last decade of his life) more than the very few earlier works that were included. A detailed time line pairs years with the information in the narrative, but they highlight works that are not included in the book. Back mater also identifies each of the images, and cites sources and resources, although most of them are not easily accessible as they are movies and exhibition catalogs. The narrative portrays racism in easy to understand vignettes, including walking to school, missing school due to work, and being unrepresented in museum exhibits. It’s important to enlighten children that there are other, more modern artists, rather than always falling on the classics (Van Gogh and Picasso). For that reason alone this book should be included in the collection, but it will have to be publicized as Benny Andrews is not someone most kids will search out and you may find yourself withdrawing it due to low use in just a few years.

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl DreamingTitle: Brown Girl Dreaming
Author: Jacqueline Woodson
ISBN: 9780399252518
Pages: 337 pages
Publisher: Nancy Paulsen Books, published by the Penguin Group, c2014.
Awards: National Book Award (winner), Coretta Scott King Award (winner), Newbery Medal (honor), and Sibert Award (honor)

Each day a new world
opens itself up to you. And all the worlds you are–
Ohio and Greenville
Woodson and Irby
Gunnar’s child and Jack’s daughter
Jahovah’s Witness and nonbeliever
listener and writer
Jackie and Jacqueline–

gather into one world

called You

where You decide

what each world
and each story
and each ending

will finally be. (319-320)

Jacqueline Woodson’s poetic memoir focuses on her childhood. Born in Ohio, her parents were divorced and she, her mother, and her two older siblings had moved down south to live with her grandparents before she even began to walk. She loved living with her grandparents, even when her mother left for Brooklyn, but they soon joined her and their new younger brother in the north again. Living in both hemispheres of the country, Jacqueline talks about the civil rights movements that she witnessed on television and in real life. As life revolves and revolutionizes around her like a merry-go-around, and even as she struggles with reading fast enough for her teachers, she begins to write down her story, so she and others can remember.

Woodson’s poems match her portrayal of herself. They are slow, reflective, and precise. She talks about how she doesn’t know the time of her birth, which is something unheard of for today as everything gets recorded, from height, weight, date and time to what you ate for breakfast. I imagine that might be one reason she became a writer, so she wouldn’t have to rely on “other people’s bad memory.” (18) There are a number of poems that appear multiple times, with numbers after their title. I wish the names of the poems had been included in the Table of contents at the front of the book. Read together, they paint their own story, especially the ones titled “How to Listen”. When she talks about growing up in the south, she and her siblings are identified by their relations “Sister Irby’s Grands / MaryAnn’s Babies”, which I could relate to being described that way countless times at family reunions and introductions. (45)

It’s readers ability to relate to Woodson’s life experiences that draws readers into the story. We may not have grown up in the same state or at the same time, but we sense what she is feelings. As an adult, I really understood when she described her mother’s dissatisfaction with moving her family back in with her parents. “Everyone else / has gone away. / And now coming back home / isn’t really coming back home / at all.” (46-47) Woodson also has that longing to identify with the people that surround her, whether it’s making up stories about her absent father, wanting to be smart like her brother, the joy she feels when she finds a book featuring an African-American character, or imitating the Black Panthers on television by proclaiming “I’m Black and I’m Proud”.

Middle school students are always coming into my library looking for biographies and/or autobiographies. While it’s light on specific facts and I’m frequently finding it in the poetry section because of the format, this would fit most assignment criteria. Woodson might agree, write this one down and don’t let it be forgotten.

The Dumbest Idea Ever

Dumbest Idea EverTitle: The Dumbest Idea Ever
Author: Jimmy Gownley
ISBN: 9780545453462
Pages: 236 pages
Publisher/Date: Graphix, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., c2014.

“I have tons of notebooks filled with drawings…
… but nothing I do looks right.
I wish this dumb town has a place where I could take art lessons. Or an art store where I could get decent supplies. Or at least had…
… I don’t know…
… at least something.
The truth is, Girardville is just a slate-gray scramble of row houses and rocks plopped in the middle of Pennsylvania’s coal region. It’s home to six churches…
… seventeen bars…
…zero libraries…
… and me. (10-12)

Author of the Amelia Rules graphic novels presents an autobiographical account of his coming of age and becoming an artist. Jimmy Gownley is on the top of the world, attending school with his friends, and scoring points both in the classroom and on the basketball court as their high scorer. After spending weeks out of school and missing his championship basketball game (his team loses in the final minute) due to first chicken pox and then pneumonia, Jimmy’s grades start slipping. But Jimmy is more concerned working for months on his first effort as a comic book writer and illustrator. When he shows it to his friend though, he realizes that his piece of art is a piece of junk. Will he ever get anything right again?

At the local elementary school where I work, each student has a yearlong assignment to read a set number of books of different genres. While some teachers leave biographies as a vague category, others specify one must be an autobiography, which is one of the hardest genres for that age level because so many autobiographies cover the entire life of the subject. Ben Carson’s Gifted Hands , John Scieszka’s Knuckleheads, Miley Cyrus’s Miles to Go and Anne Frank’s Diary of a Girl are the ones that immediately come to mind, and after that we have to do some real digging. So this is a must buy in my opinion for public libraries because it adds another title to the autobiography list, it is less serious in tone, and it meets that ever elusive over 100 pages criteria that is usually implemented for book reports.

If you are at all familiar with the Amelia Rules series, you’ll recognize the artwork and color scheme, but author Gownley adds something to it. When character Jimmy is sick, the illustrations turn gray and washed out, and they don’t turn bright and bold again until he enters the comic book shop for the first time, resulting in a Oz like page turn when the curtain is pulled back in a colorful landscape of possibilities. During a visit to a museum, the characters interact with famous paintings that are imitated really well. A flashback sequence featuring a childhood friend is rendered like the old Archie comics, with beige-yellow backgrounds interacting with the present day scenes. It’s done really well.

Jimmy is relatable to just about everyone. His teachers misunderstand him and he struggles with his first crush. He has one best friend who is honest with him and he also has several friends that he interacts with that rotate in and out of his life. There’s homework that doesn’t get done and class discussions that get heated. Towards the end of the novel, Jimmy and his friend are having a conversation about his comic that struck me as great advice.
“You’re not trying to get rich! There’s no way that’s why you’re doing this.”
“Well, no… of course not.”
“Then don’t pretend like it is.” (233)
If you’re doing what you love doing, isn’t it enough? As people are pursuing their life goals and ambitions, they should think about why they are doing something and try to accomplish that, not try to accomplish something they know won’t result from those efforts.

The only complaint is that while the characters noticeably age and grow, the actual amount of time passing is a little foggy. The story starts in what appears to be eighth grade, they move into high school. There are at least two summers that get glazed over pretty quickly as working vacations that Jimmy spends crafting his comic strip. Then suddenly Jimmy is attending the prom, but he’s still asking his dad for a ride to the comic book store over an hour away. Other than that though, it’s a fast read that encourages kids to follow their dreams, regardless of how many times they have to restart.

nonfiction mondayA portion of this review was cross-posted at the Nonfiction Monday blog. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

Coretta Scott King Awards 2014

The American Library Association announced their Annual Youth Media Awards earlier this year, and I’ve been slowly but surely catching up on reading all the winners and honorees. The Coretta Scott King Awards are a set of three awards that honor African American authors, illustrators, and new talent of outstanding literature for children and young adults. I’ll be focusing on the Illustrator and New Talent Awards in this post, with the longer author winner and honorees in a separate post once I finish reading them. I have to say though, there were really no surprises in these categories, as the same people are continually recognized for their contributions.

For the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Book Award, the committee chose one winner and one honoree.
Nelson MandelaTitle: Nelson Mandela
Author/Illustrator: Kadir Nelson
ISBN: 978006178374
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, c2013.
Publication Date: January 2, 2013

The honor was given to Kadir Nelson, who authored and illustrated a picture book biography on Nelson Mandela, published at the very beginning of 2013. Nelson Mandela’s passing at the end of 2013 serves as an ironic footnote to the book’s publication and award recognition. Kadir Nelson’s name has cropped up a host of times, and his work has been recognized over an over again.
Won the 2012 Coretta Scott King Author Award Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans
2012 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor for Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans.
Caldecott Honor for Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad by Ellen Levine
Caldecott Honor for Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford, for which he also garnered a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award and won an NAACP Image Award;
Won Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for Ellington Was Not a Street by Ntozake Shange
Won Coretta Scott King Author Award for We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball
Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor for We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball

Are you sensing a theme here? Whenever he writes something, he gets recognized by someone! And most people will say rightfully so. In his newest book, readers see Kadir Nelson’s signature style of life-like renderings from the cover (which mimics the design of his biographies on Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King Jr.) all the way to the end. Most striking I think is the first page, where we see a young Nelson playing with the village boys and the sun shines forth from behind the hill with such warmth your eye is immediately drawn to the contrasting shadowed silhouettes. The sparse, poetically formatted text supplements the pictures, that carry the light and dark themes throughout the book.

My one complaint about this and other picture book biographies is that very few specifics are included. Annual biography assignments for school children often have a checklist of facts that need to be contained in the books or require an inclusion of a time line. While this would be a great asset to children studying biographies, especially during February’s Black History Month, readers would be hard pressed to find specifics. Would it have been so hard to add a timeline in the back of the book along side the author’s note, or include specific dates in the text instead of “in early 1990″? Or am I the only person getting frustrated by this oversight?

Knock Knock My Dad's Dream for MeTitle: Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me
Author: Daniel Beaty
Illustrator: Bryan Collier
ISBN: 9780316209175
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc. c2013.
Publication Date: December 17, 2013

More recently published Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me won the Illustrator award. Bryan Collier is another illustrator who has been recognized time and time again, with three Caldecott Honors and four Coretta Scott King Awards over the years. Collier’s collages and Beaty’s text follows a young boy as he experiences the loss of his father’s influence. The author doesn’t specify in the story that the father has been incarcerated until you read the end notes, which I appreciate because it lends versatility to the story and could be used for divorce situations in addition to incarceration. The illustrations follow the boy as he grows into an educated man and an involved father in his own right, but at the end you still see the influence his own father had on him, regardless of or maybe because of his absence.

The more symbolic structure of the illustrations lend the impression this is meant for older audiences, and I can see where this might be a recommendation for patrons specifically looking for material of this nature. Most poignant is the subtle nods to the father’s absence, such as the main character wearing his father’s tie as he peruses his dreams, and an elephant statue peeking out of his office background mimicking the child’s bedroom wallpaper. The ending picture seems slightly out of context with the rest of the story, but although overall I think the less abstract images make the most impact when reading, that last picture makes a memorable ending to a tale of perseverance.

When the Beat Was BornTitle: When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop
Author: Laban Carrick Hill
Illustrator: Theodore Taylor III
ISBN: 9781596435407
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Roaring Brook Press, a division of Holtzbrinck Publishing Holdings Limited Partnership, c2013.

According to the ALA website the John Steptoe New Talent Award was “established to affirm new talent and to offer visibility to excellence in writing and/or illustration which otherwise might be formally unacknowledged within a given year within the structure of the two awards given annually by the Coretta Scott King Task Force.” This award is often overlooked because it’s not awarded every year.

I can understand why this book was recognized by the committee, as it sheds light on the start of Hip Hop, something that most people have never considered. The story focuses on DJ Kool Herc rise from Jamican music lover peering over the fence at party set-ups to hooking up his father’s super-sized speakers to street lamps and christening the break dance style that evolved during his days of being a DJ. While Laban Carrick Hill includes a personalized author’s note and a partial time line of hip hop in the 1970s and 1980s, just like Kadir Nelson’s picture book biography he avoids specific dates and details.

The pictures by Theodore Taylor III are well drawn, with clean lines showing children what the different break dancing moves look like. His work showcases the old technology of speakers bigger than people, boomboxes bigger than babies, and turntables plugged into one another instead of through wireless connections. It’s almost a time capsule for readers, where parents can talk about the music they used to listen to, and I wish it had a compilation CD that featured some of the “Hip Hop” beats that are discussed in the book. I especially enjoyed the scene of community where Herc is playing street parties in the park and we see people of all ages, including one gray haired woman and a small child with a jump rope, listening to the music. As someone who grew up in the suburbs and didn’t have that type of environment, I’m surprised to find myself wanting to seek out that community network.

This post is in honor of Nonfiction Mondays. Check out the blog for other reviews of nonfiction books.

Truce

0-545-13049-2Title: Truce: The Day the Soldiers Stopped Fighting
Author: Jim Murphy
ISBN: 9780545130493
Pages: 116 pages
Publisher/Date: Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic, Inc.

In a matter of days, six million soldiers would find themselves facing weapons of unimaginable destructive power. Many of them would be blasted from the face of the earth, while others would be left permanently wounded in horrible ways. None of these young men realized that their leaders had lied to get them to fight in a war that did not have to happen. Nor could they know that on December 25, 1914, they would openly defy their commanding officers and meet on the battlefield in what can only be described as a Christmas miracle. (x)

Since I’ve read Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan I know that World War I started when the Austrian Archduke was assassinated while visiting Bosnia-Herzegovina. I’d also previously heard about the impromptu truce that was called between troops in order to celebrate Christmas, which when the war started was when everyone thought the war would be over. Little did they know at that point it was just starting. But Jim Murphy glosses over the causes of the war and strives to put the focus on the soldiers involved in the conflict. There are copious photos of soldiers in the trenches, close-ups of the no-mans land that they could not cross, and the aftermath of the futile charges when they did attempt an attack. Soldiers from both sides are quoted extensively, with first-hand accounts taken from journals, letters home, and official correspondence. Even if you’d previously heard about the impromptu and imperfect truce, there’s new insight to be gained.

For instance, did you know that the truce was previously coordinated? Mini-truces had been organized between the troops, as they exchanged songs and sometimes supplies over the crumbling walls. Murphy relates that one area even had a shooting competition, where a target was placed in the middle and each sides shot until it was hit. But arranging the truce depended upon the individual platoons, battalions, and soldiers.

The most surprising thing was that it was frowned upon by the superior officers!

Back at headquarters, [English] General Horace Smith-Dorrien had been disturbing reports all day about strange goings-on at the front. […] The commander of all British troops, Field Marshall John French, was just as angry. “When this [fraternization] was reported to me I issued immediate orders to prevent any recurrence of such conduct, and called the local commanders to strict account, which resulted in a good deal of trouble.
The German High Command took much the same view and issued a terse order: “Commander Second Army directs that informal understandings with enemy are to cease. Officers . . . allowing them are to be brought before a court-martial.” (82-83)

As a result, some of the opposing officers in the field met to warn their enemies that they’d be resuming their hostilities. Some soldiers initially refused to resume firing, and others warned their counterparts each time they were forced to give the impression that they were still fighting, such as when they were being inspected by higher ranking members. While most places continued to fight by the new year, soldiers stationed on both sides at Ploegsteert Wood kept the friendship until March. I laughed at some of the comments, as I’m sure the commanding generals did not, such as when one captain declared that the men waved at each other and made tea and acted “most gentlemanly” and that “this useless and annoying sniping can have no real effect on the progress of the campaign.” (88)

A truly intriguing idea that begs the perpetual and never solved “What if” question that is probably hanging over the heads of every soldier involved. “What if the fighting had stopped there?” How different would history and the world be? Especially how reluctantly some of the parties were to even get involved in the conflict, I wish the practice of listening to the troops and the people would have enacted some change. As the holidays approach and we hear about “Peace on Earth and goodwill towards men,” consider reading this book and learning about how this idea was practiced in the worst of circumstances.

This was posted in conjunction with Nonfiction Mondays, a drive around the internet to encourage reading and reviewing nonfiction titles.

Bird Talk and Alex the Parrot

I’m usually trying to pair unique books with each other, whether it’s for story times or simply to promote them together on a display. Two books published last year both have wonderful illustrations and complement each other with their subjects.

Bird TalkAlex the Parrot

Title: Bird Talk: What Birds are Saying and Why
Author/Illustrator: Lita Judge
ISBN: 9781596436466
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Flash Point, an imprint of
Roaring Brook Press, c2012.
Title: Alex the Parrot: No Ordinary Bird
Author: Stephanie Spinner
Illustrator: Meilo So
ISBN: 9780375868467
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Alfred A. Knopf,
an imprint of Random House Children’s Books,
a division of Random House, c2012.

On a completely unrelated note… “Look Ma, COLUMNS!” So pretty. Ahem, regaining my train of thought…
While I knew about Koko the gorilla who was taught sign-language, I was not familiar with Alex, which stands for Avian Learning EXperiment. In Alex the Parrot Stephanie Spinner goes into detail about the raising and training of Alex, and African grey parrot that eventually would go on to learn hundreds of words and concepts taught to children in kindergarten. He would combine words to make sentences, answer questions, and compare items by their shape or color. No one expected these abilities from a bird with a brain the size of a walnut, but Alex proved them wrong. Spinner also talks about the lengths that trainer Irene Pepperberg took to avoid acusations that the bird was simply mimicing her or responding to unconscious cues.

As a comparison with what other birds do naturally, pair it with the book Bird Talk by Lita Judge. You might have to either explain or alter the language for younger audiences when she says “attract a mate”, “fledgling” or “species”, but she does include a glossary at the end to assist with that task. There are over two dozen of introductory exmples of birds around the world, varying from the common robin, blue jay and crows to the more exotic Scarlet Macaws, Blue Bird of Paradise, and yes even the African Grey Parrot. It does seem that the subtitle might be viewed as a misnomer, since the book doesn’t just cover vocalizations, but also explains how different types of birds behave when defending their flocks and about half the book is mating/courship behaviors. Overall though, the pictures are engaging and well-drawn and the listing in the back makes an easy reference of where you can find those species featured.

Maybe slightly more detailed than is ideal for classroom sharing, the books overall would both go over well for kids with birds on the brain, and I would hand them together to anyone who’s hearing the call of the wild outside their window.

This post is in honor of Nonfiction Mondays. For the entire round-up of all the bloggers who participated, you’ll have to head on over to Julie Azzam’s blog, Instantly Interruptible.

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